Schools embrace Baseline despite Government U-turn

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Thousands of schools are planning to use the Baseline to assess Reception children in their first few weeks at school, despite it no longer being used as an accountability measure by the Government.

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West Earlham's head says statutory assessment is 'critical'

Thousands of schools are planning to use the Baseline to assess Reception children in their first few weeks at school, despite it no longer being used as an accountability measure by the Government.

Schools will be funded by the Department for Education to use the Baseline in the 2016-17 academic year if they want to.

However, without the publication of a revised Early Years Foundation Stage, the EYFS Profile at the end of Reception remains the statutory assessment for children in the early years.

Before axing the Baseline, the Government had intended to make the Profile voluntary for schools after this year.

Meanwhile, the DfE has confirmed that it will be announcing further details on the way forward ‘in due course’.

A spokesperson said, ‘Assessing pupils on entry to school is important to ensure they receive the support they need to achieve their potential regardless of background or circumstance.

‘We remain committed to measuring the progress of pupils through primary school and are continuing to look at the best way to assess pupils in the early years. In the meantime we continue to offer the optional Baseline assessment for schools to use next year and we encourage schools to use this to identify pupils who may need additional support.’

The introduction of a Baseline in the first few weeks of Reception was viewed as controversial by many in the sector.

Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, a member of the Better Without Baseline coalition, said the organisation remained ‘mystified’ as to why public money is funding such schemes when the results will not be used for accountability.

She highlighted research on the 2015 pilot year, indicating that the Baseline increased teacher workloads, ‘without materially adding to their understanding of children’s learning’.

In the coming year her understanding is that most schools ‘will revert to their own tried and tested ways of assessing children on entry’ in keeping with EYFS principles.

Ms Merrick added that it was ‘of concern’ that the Profile remains in a state of limbo, with no official announcement to say any changes will be deferred.

‘We are hopeful that Government have listened to the sector and understood the importance of retaining the Profile for at least another year, and hope that the decision can be communicated to the sector very soon,’ she added.

‘STAMP OF APPROVAL’

In September, around 2,500 schools will use EExBA, the Baseline assessment developed by Early Excellence.

The company’s chief executive Liz Marsden said for participating schools the appeal is having an ‘official’ starting point based on observation and everyday interactions with children.

Before the DfE axed the Baseline earlier this year – after research concluded that the three assessments used by schools are not comparable – Early Excellence was the main pilot provider, the others being the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), and Durham University’s Centre of Evaluation and Monitoring (CMO).

Some 12,000 of the country’s 19,000 schools signed up with Early Excellence for the last academic year, which collected data on more than 400,000 children. Just 2,000 schools opted out.

Though much lower this year, Ms Marsden said that she regards the continued take-up as a stamp of approval.

‘This year, the DfE said the policy isn’t compulsory, but schools that want to continue to use the model can do so,’ she told Nursery World.

‘It’s a system that works on the micro level of knowing children and on a macro level of knowing where the gaps are,’ she added.

Describing the purpose of the Baseline for practitioners, she said, ‘It’s about flagging, “Do I feel I have any issues with the development of this child?”, “Where can I intervene to help this child learn?”’

More schools are also going to be using the Early Excellence Assessment Tracker (EExAT) for birth to fives, she claimed.

Described by Early Excellence as ‘one solution for assessing, tracking, documenting and moderating children’s learning and progress from birth to the end of the Foundation Stage’, Ms Marsden said inspiration for the tracker arose from conversations with Sunderland City Council officers, who wanted to know if a system for ‘joining up assessment across ages and settings’ could be developed.

She said, ‘The tracker is the result of close partnership work with Sunderland, their schools and pre-school settings, resulting in a practitioner-led, easy-to-use system.’

Following the pilots, EExAT (an online system with data collection and reporting built in) is ready to be rolled out in childcare settings, pre-schools and schools across the country.

The company said 500 settings have signed up to use it from September 2016.

According to Early Excellence, several local authorities have also reviewed the system and are set to recommend it to all of their schools and early years settings.

Ms Marsden said each ‘super-user’ will be able to analyse the gathered data, promising a powerful insight into how the organisation is doing and where more attention is needed.

She added that the system is geared towards ‘celebrating what children can do’, and allows Early Excellence to ‘create a baseline for any age of child, at any time’.

Looking to the future, the company is in discussions with the DfE about comparing Profile data with its own Baseline data.

Ms Marsden said, ‘We have half a million children’s Baseline data from September 2015 and have a real insight into learning behaviours and abilities as children start Reception.

‘My very strongly held view is that it is impossible to separate emotional health and well-being from academic and life-long success, and our early data analysis backs this up, clearly demonstrating that a wider, broader and more inclusive definition of success needs to be used in the future.’

Jan Dubiel, Early Excellence’s national development manager, gave evidence about assessment to a recent joint meeting of the education and work and pensions committees, which was discussing the foundation years and the Government’s as-yet-unpublished ‘life chances’ strategy.

Asked his thoughts on the Profile becoming voluntary, Mr Dubiel said, ‘I think we need to preserve the Profile or something very much like it, but also we need to look at how we monitor and are accountable for the impact throughout EYFS, from birth to Reception.’

He added, ‘Practitioners are quite clear they’re assessing all the time… we need a way of encapsulating that and being held accountable for those things.’

CASE STUDY: WEST EARLHAM INFANT AND NURSERY SCHOOL

Binks Neate-Evans, head teacher at West Earlham Infant and Nursery School in Norwich, describes the assessment landscape as being in ‘disarray’ across the education system.

She adds that statutory assessment, including during the early years, is ‘critical’ both for teachers and schools to be able to improve their own practice, and for accountability to Government.

West Earlham has been using both the tracker and Baseline offered by Early Excellence, which the head teacher describes as a ‘principled’ version of what practitioners do naturally.

Addressing arguments against the Baseline, Ms Neate-Evans says it not only helps practitioners better identify a child’s needs or strengths, but also assists the school in spotting trends, such as areas in which it is delivering quality, or not.

For example, if the data shows children’s well-being is poor across the setting, ‘we’d need to divert resources’, such as training for staff or specialised support.

‘I don’t see how anyone can be critical of that,’ she adds, suggesting that there was an element of ‘scaremongering’ in reports of very young children being under pressure, sat at different tables if they are not considered to have reached an appropriate level, or marked down at baseline to exaggerate improvement at the end of the year.

‘The system that Early Excellence is promoting isn’t intrusive at all,’ she says. ‘It’s based on good early years practice, good practitioner-led observation. I’ve never met an early years practitioner who would use that information or convey it to children in a way that could be construed negatively.

‘It’s about how to convey your values and ethos and how that feels for children.’

Referring to any forthcoming Government changes, Ms Neate-Evans says people ‘understand the Profile’, adding, ‘I think one of our concerns is if there’s going to be change, how that’s going to be researched and implemented.

‘Schools can’t keep managing this level of change unless it’s evidence-based, done in a timely manner, in a way that will work for schools and practitioners, and not based on what works for politicians.

‘I think there’s a tension there and that’s the problem. They want to go for quick wins, and educating a child and changing systems is much more complex. We’ll always focus on the impact on the children. Whether you assess children at the beginning or at the end, we’ll deliver that in a humane way.

‘We should only be collecting data if it’s useful.’

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